October 4, 2022 6 Unexpected Climate Lessons From Hurricane Ian

Residents inspect damage to a marina as boats are partially submerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida, on Sept. 29, 2022. Credit: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images
Residents inspect damage to a marina as boats are partially submerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida, on Sept. 29, 2022. Credit: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images

Saying that Hurricane Ian was one for the history books is no understatement.

The Category 4 hurricane—just the 15th storm of such magnitude to strike Florida since state record-keeping began in 1851—had maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour and a minimum central pressure of 940 millibars when it made landfall just south of Tampa Bay last week. That puts Ian in an eight-way tie for the fifth strongest storm on record to hit the United States, as well as No. 18 in terms of its central pressure.

With current damage estimates going as high as $47 billion, Ian could also become Florida’s costliest hurricane in state history and among the 10 costliest on record nationally. It’s also the deadliest storm to hit Florida since at least the year 2000, surpassing Hurricane Irma’s death toll of 77 in 2017. As of Monday, at least 101 people have been reported killed in Florida and at least four died in North Carolina. Those numbers could climb further as search and rescue operations continue.

“As you all know, the situation in Florida is far more devastating. We’re just beginning to see the scale of that destruction,” President Joe Biden said during a Sept. 30 press conference on Ian. “It’s looking to rank among the worst in the nation’s history.”

It’s the kind of devastation that climate scientists have been increasingly warning about in recent years, as climate change drives up ocean temperatures that can fuel the energy and destructive capabilities of storms like Ian. A study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is just the latest in a quickly growing body of evidence to say that global warming is making storms more intense and destructive.

According to the analysis, which looked at satellite images dating back to 1979, climate change has boosted the likelihood of a hurricane developing into a Category 3 storm or higher by about 8 percent every decade.

But as I wrote last week regarding Hurricane Fiona, which surprised many communities over just how destructive it was, Ian’s intensity also appeared to catch Florida residents off guard, despite plenty of advanced warning that the storm was being supercharged by the Atlantic Ocean’s unseasonably warm waters.

In fact, a growing number of climate researchers are saying that not only is global warming making natural disasters like storms, wildfires and heat waves more frequent and severe, but they’re also occurring in unexpected places and playing out in unexpected ways that often confound the science community’s expectations. Ian was no exception.

With that in mind, here are six unexpected climate-related lessons we can draw from Hurricane Ian.

1) Ian was a poster child of climate change, combining its threats into one storm

While many people may not be surprised to learn that climate change contributed to the destructive nature of Hurricane Ian, it was a rare—though increasingly common—example of when a storm bears all the hallmarks of global warming’s influences.

Climate change is helping to supercharge tropical storms in terms of windforce and storm surge, as warmer waters lend more energy to hurricanes. It’s making storms wetter, as warmer air allows hurricanes to absorb more ocean water. And it’s often slowing down the path of storms, which allows a hurricane to dump massive amounts of rain over one region for a longer period of time, increasing the threats associated with floods.

Scientists have warned that the prevalence of those dangerous characteristics would become more common in the coming decades, a trend that has happened to materialize in some of our most recent major hurricanes. In fact, last year’s Hurricane Ida was a prime example of all three of those characteristics—stronger winds, heavier rain and a slower path—converging in just one storm. 

The same goes for Hurricane Ian.

At Category 4 strength, Ian blasted Florida’s coastal cities with powerful 150 mile-per-hour winds, ripping apart houses and generating “life threatening” and historic storm surge. Some areas saw storm surge reach heights of 12 feet, with the National Hurricane Center predicting as much as 18 feet of surge in Charlotte Harbor. That estimate, however, has yet to be confirmed because flooding broke the agency’s gauge in the area—but not before it registered 7 feet.

Ian was unusually wet, with at least one spot in New Smyrna seeing nearly 30 inches of rainfall. The first attribution study done of Ian, released this week, also found that climate change infused the hurricane with 10 percent more rain. And the Sarasota area received more than 13 inches of rain in just six hours, making Ian more rare than a “one in 1,000 year storm”—a storm with rainfall so heavy that it has less than a 0.1 percent chance of occurring in a given year. 

Finally, clocking in at a speed of just 9 miles per hour as it crawled along Florida’s coast, Ian’s path was also considerably slow-moving, according to the Key West Weather Service.

2) Ian showed us that flood waters can reach communities far from the hurricane warning zones

Hurricane Ian didn’t just leave its mark on the communities directly in its path. Many residents living in Central Florida—far from the hurricane warning zones—found themselves beset by rising flood waters days after the storm had left the state.

“Water just keeps going up. Who knows when it is going to stop,” Samuel Almanzar, who faced no evacuation orders and who thought his house in the quiet Sarasota suburb of North Port was safe from damage, told the Associated Press.

In Seminole County, too, residents were shocked to find their homes flooded well after Ian had already moved onto the Carolinas, when just a day or two prior they were essentially dry. One resident told the AP that she had never seen flooding on her street near Lake Harney like she did Sunday morning, despite living through multiple hurricanes.

Experts say that’s because the floodwater was carried into those towns by rivers, which continued to take on Ian’s deluge as the storm slowly worked its way northeast. The rivers then carried the water downstream, releasing it onto an unsuspecting Central Florida population, turning roads into canals, blocking critical highway access points and trapping terrified families in waterlogged homes.

On Sunday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled to North Port and Arcadia to survey the damage. Floods were reported all across the state’s central region, stretching from Orlando down to the city of Kissimmee, and east to Daytona Beach. With rescue efforts ongoing, concerns arose over some places running out of food and clean drinking water, and officials warned that additional flooding from the rivers could continue through the week.

3) Ian reminded us of the dire cost to underestimating climate change

Days before Hurricane Ian made landfall on the western coast of Florida last Wednesday, forecasters were sounding the alarm, warning of “life threatening” storm surge and powerful winds. 

Officials along much of the coastline responded by ordering their communities to evacuate on Monday, Sept. 26. But Lee County officials held off their announcement for a full day, in part because forecasters were uncertain of the path Ian would ultimately take. 

But the fact that Lee County delayed any serious warning to leave at all, knowing that Ian would in some way impact the coastline, speaks volumes of the tendency among American policymakers to underestimate the power of climate change. That choice, it would turn out, was a mistake.

Ian slammed into Florida on its originally predicted course, with Lee County taking the brunt of the storm’s impact. Many of the county’s residents were caught completely unprepared. As of this week, a staggering 55 of the 101 deaths so far confirmed in Florida due to Ian took place in Lee County.

Now those officials are facing questions about why they didn’t tell residents to leave sooner.

Strangely enough, local, state and federal officials—including from the Biden administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, defended the decision. Over the weekend, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell spoke on national news, saying the projected danger zone for Ian remained unclear days before its landfall, and that once Lee County officials “knew that they were in that threat zone,” they “made the decisions to evacuate and get people to safety.”

But climate scientists have generally criticized U.S. policymakers for consistently under-preparing for the consequences of the climate crisis, and forecasters even warned days in advance of Ian’s landfall in Florida that the storm could supercharge to nearly Category 5 strength. It’s a narrative that appeared to play out again in Lee County.

One last example: While some 600,000 Florida utility customers remained without power on Monday— most of them reliant on a centralized grid powered predominantly by fossil fuels—an entire neighborhood located on the northern tip of Lee County managed to keep electricity flowing throughout Hurricane Ian. How? It was powered 100 percent by solar energy.

4) Ian exposed how climate change is fueling gentrification

Flooding from storms is pushing Florida homebuyers and business owners with more resources to buy up properties located outside the state’s known flood zones, redrawing coastal communities and often displacing low-income and immigrant residents in the process. 

In other words, Florida has become a hotbed for “climate gentrification,” says a new study from Columbia University and Tulane University.

The research examines property trends across the Sunshine State, providing an “early warning system,” or Climate Gentrification Risk Index, for elected officials and city managers who have struggled to recognize or respond to the trend of climate gentrification.

While the study focuses on Florida, the trend is likely taking place all across the nation. Climate-driven natural disasters are forcing more Americans out of their homes and triggering waves of relocations as some regions of the country become too burdensome or dangerous for many people to continue living in them. The federal government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment warned that more than 13 million people across the country may need to move by the end of the century due to sea level rise alone, and a growing body of evidence suggests the U.S. isn’t prepared to handle it.

In terms of Florida, the authors of the new study hope their index can become an important tool to help guide policymakers overseeing recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Ian. The Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro area is the sixth-largest in Florida and among its fastest-growing regions. It was also one of the areas most impacted by Ian.

5) It reminded us that climate misinformation often spreads in the wake of a big disasters

When CNN anchor Don Lemon asked the acting director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on live television to talk about how climate change was affecting storms like Hurricane Ian, the federal official attempted to sidestep the question.

“I don’t think you can link climate change to any one event,” NOAA’s Jamie Rhome responded. “On the whole, on the cumulative, climate change may be making storms worse, but to link it to any one event, I would caution against that.”

The exchange quickly took off on Twitter and other social media platforms, with many users seeing the moment as a vindication for their doubts that global warming is as bad as the vast majority of climate experts say it is.

“This is amazing. Don Lemon tries to blame Hurricane Ian on climate change,” one Twitter user said, his post being shared more than 7,000 times. “NOAA’s hurricane director shuts him down.”

“For anyone not living in fantasy land, yes this storm is worse than usual because of climate change,” another user replied.

But what Rhome was doing was pointing out the difficulties in attribution science, the field that determines whether climate change did, in fact, have an influence on the outcomes of a singular weather event. While scientists now generally agree that climate change has an overall impact on the planet’s weather patterns, many have refrained from too quickly passing such a judgment on every storm, fire and heat wave that passes through.

The still burgeoning field has drawn criticism within the science community over the years. But researchers in the area have also drastically improved their ability to determine whether any given weather event carries the fingerprint of climate change.

In fact, the tools used in attribution science have become so powerful, and the body of work produced in the field so plentiful, that many climate experts now say it’s irresponsible for any scientist to say climate change isn’t influencing any given weather event.

“Too often we still hear, even from government scientists, the old saw that we cannot link individual hurricanes to climate change,” climate scientists Michael Mann and Susan Joy Hassol, wrote in an opinion piece last week. “There was a time when climate scientists believed that to be true. But they don’t any more.”

Nonetheless, the moment between Lemon and Rhome presented a golden opportunity for those who spread misleading or false information about climate change to capitalize on it. In fact, climate-related misinformation often surfaces in the wake of major disasters, like Ian. 

The same thing happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida last year. One post, with a picture of a monkey and a caption that reads, “FLORIDA HAS HAD 119 HURRICANES SINCE 1850, BUT THE LAST ONE WAS DUE TO CLIMATE CHANGE,” was shared at least 23,000 times on Facebook. Similar memes, which attempt to portray concerns over climate change as foolish, have appeared online after many major U.S. hurricanes, including hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

“Having this stupid argument every time an extreme weather event occurs, and definitely extreme weather events are occurring more and more frequently and causing more and more damage, it’s a distraction from the real issue,” Elizabeth Kolbert, a longtime climate journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author told France’s leading news agency, Agence France-Presse, last year.

6) Despite all the challenges, it also showed American politics can still be set aside for the greater good

Most importantly of all, perhaps, Hurricane Ian was a reminder that despite the combative rhetoric that has seemed to increasingly dominate U.S. politics in recent years, the American people are still capable of setting aside their differences and working together for the greater good.

Despite his track record of voting against hurricane recovery and being one of President Biden’s most vocal critics, Gov. DeSantis welcomed the administration’s help and even conveyed a message of unity on a cable news program known especially for its politically divisive reputation: Fox News’ ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight.’

“We live in a very politicized time,” DeSantis said on the program last week, as he asked the Biden administration to “do the right thing” and fulfill his request for full federal reimbursement up front for 60 days. “But you know, when people are fighting for their lives, when their whole livelihood is at stake, when they’ve lost everything—if you can’t put politics aside for that, then you’re just not going to be able to.”

Biden, too, leaned into a message of unity last week as he briefed the nation on Ian’s ongoing rescue efforts. “This is one fight—everyone working together,” he said. “The Coast Guard, Defense Department, Customs and Border Patrol, Florida Fish and Wildlife, local officials, they’re doing everything they can to rescue people.”

And when the two did meet, and DeSantis requested that Biden expand the federal emergency declaration to an additional four counties in Central Florida—the ones unexpectedly hit by river flooding—the president quickly agreed. The move will allow those counties to access the billions in federal aid now heading to Florida for Ian recovery efforts.

Given that both Biden and DeSantis are stumping in one way or another for the upcoming midterm elections, such unity could be short-lived. But it was a rare moment in today’s highly-charged political atmosphere where the greater good—for whatever reason—prevailed. In that sense, maybe it was an important reminder that the fight to curb climate change can still prevail, too.

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

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That’s how many hurricanes reached Category 4 strength during last year’s Atlantic storm season, adding to a quickly growing tally of “billion-dollar” disasters, fueled in large part because of human-caused climate change.